People like to feel one of a kind. But what is unique about a person who can be genetically cloned? How special are we if computers beat us at chess? Although robots are still in their beta version, there is a clear sense of their inevitable take-over of most things human. A robot ski competition took place at this year’s Olympic Winter games, and as clumsy as it looked, it only gave a sense of the imminent future of robotic achievements. It is a scary feeling. Even though we like to attribute human feelings to everything around us (from cats to plants and even to two dots and a line :), we are afraid of what looks and feels too much like a human. It’s uncanny. This exhibition raises the question of the threatening something, that looks so real it makes Madame Tussaud’s look like a child’s display. There is also some self-irony — exaggerations, caricatures and an imagination given free rein. While most sculptures fit neatly into the hyperrealistic theme, others play with the human body by discarding laws of nature, giving it one colour or deforming it. However, this doesn’t make them any less disturbing. It makes it impossible for viewers to simply walk by. They position the visitor as the voyeur since they allow them to indulge in the often repressed desire to observe people and infringe on their intimacy. Consequently, all works tether on the edge of awe and alienation.
The 35 artworks by 28 artists are categorised in four sections — Doppelgängers, Dimensions, Deformations and Body Parts. I will focus on the first two.
Hyperrealism started between the 1960s and the 1970s. Hyperrealistic sculptures portray human bodies with the utmost attention to details such as wrinkles, folds, pores, nails, veins, moles, hairs and eyelashes. In the age of selfies, defined by the quest of physical perfection, hyperrealist sculpture showcases what the human body is actually like — without photoshop or facetune — in all its glory and goriness. Each artist tells a different story, questioning our narrow aesthetic ideals and the boundaries of the human body and showing that not much has changed since Victor Hugo’s exclamation: “How beauty varies in nature and art. In a woman the flesh must be like marble; in a statue the marble must be like flesh.” Apart from the fact that they look so realistic, the sculptures make the public feel uncomfortable and unsure as to what reaction to have — especially in relation to often explicit nudes of the controversial Paul McCarthy, for example. While naked shop mannequins or Barbie dolls are almost a daily occurrence, a hyperrealistic equivalent makes you feel like an uninvited voyeur. How long should you stare before crossing the boundary to indecent? The dilemma is heightened by the awareness of their creation — live models are often used and sometimes even made plaster moulds of. Nevertheless, the curators tackled this conundrum head on with the Naked Tour event on the weekend of April 14–15, when visitors were allowed to visit the exhibition in a state of complete undress.
Lisa plays on allusions of her reclining nude predecessors, suggestion strengthened by the absence of body hair. But unlike the beauties of the Antiquity, one gets the impression that she might be breathing. The sculpture positions the visitor as the voyeur, while the naked and vulnerable Lisa, head turned and eyes closed, remains forever the passive object devoid of sexual power. In a wider context, DeAndrea questions the role we play in society and the way we see ourselves and others, an omni-present debate in a culture of social media.
Ramos’ retro style is created through a parody of 60s and 70s advertising images laced with the eroticism of pin-up girls. The body is transformed and modified to succumb to its advertising purpose — objectification at its finest. Chiquita Banana is a crude depiction of a naked women emerging from a phallus symbol, a banana, that juxtaposes the pleasure of consumption with sexual connotations. While Chiquita Banana appeared in 1964, it also captures the zeitgeist of today’s feminine ideal, as presented in the media, something that Ramos shows in his repetition of the infamous image.
The suggestion is clear. The British Pop artist is as shocking today as he was in 1970 when he first unveiled his furniture sculptures — Hatstand, Table and Chair — women transformed into furniture. The feminist and gender debates became so incensed that a feminist group vandalised the sculpture Chairwhen it was shown at the Tate Gallery in 1986. With Refrigerator, Jones objectifies the woman again. And not just any woman — a femme fatale dressed in a leather cat suit and high heals whose torso is substituted by a polished wooden box with metal legs.
The swimmer seems to have just resurfaced from water. The realistic water drops blur the lines between material and flesh and give the model both physical presence and sex appeal. Athletic discipline and flawless beauty both characterise the General’s Twin. Feuerman’s technique of hundreds of coats of paint, employed to achieve the desired effect of translucency and depth, strengthen the image of aesthetic perfection.
The human brain is trained to form relationships with what we see and recognise. Robotic scientists have discovered that the more human a robot looks like, the more empathy humans feel for it. But our limit is reached when robots look too real, as is the case with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Empathy turns to fear and antipathy. Japanese professor Masahiro Mori coined the term the ‘uncanny valley’ in the 1970s. Film directors observed the same phenomenon. Apparently the more realistic computer animation is, the better — until it happens with people. The 2016 movie The Jungle Book was as a result fully and realistically animated, with the exception of Mowgli. He was played by a flesh-and-blood actor. Freud’s essay Das Unheimliche explains how we feel strange if something that has always felt familiar and ordinary suddenly gives an unsettling impression. This is what visitors to the exhibition also feel when looking at bodies they are used to seeing — with the exception that they are not of real people.
A spectacular example of the uncanny effect is this five meter long sculpture of a new-born baby. It is morbid and at the same time familiar as it invites visitors into the intimacy of the subject’s every fold and vein. Mueck’s strategy is simple — he deliberately makes his sculptures too big or too small, while preserving the realistic aspect and proportions. The enormous format of the baby forces you to look at it differently — its helplessness and awkwardness have only been magnified. It is the same technique storytellers use. Only one outlandish sequence added to a credible line of events creates suspense. Nevertheless, Mueck’s technique gave rise to a revolution in the world of hyperrealism. While his predecessors were still using casts from real models for their sculptures, he was training for decades on designing models and special effects for films and commercials and found it natural to think outside the box.
A few hours away, in Voorlinden Museum stands Mueck’s other masterpiece, Couple under an Umbrella. Exhibiting the metaphoric bigger than life love of the couple, Mueck does not shy away from highlighting the physical imperfections of his models.
Like all the best exhibitions, Hyperrealism Sculpture, challenges viewers to reflect on human existence at large. Even if we think we know what a human body is — it is only a snapshot of the current (and indeterminate) stage of human evolution. Plastic surgery and hormone therapy has made the body more versatile than ever. From sex change to photoshop and face filters, the laws of nature have ceased to apply in a semi-virtual world. Technology has already become as essential to our lives as our senses and organs. Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus anticipates cyborgs as the next stage in our evolution. So what exactly is a human being? And how many stages of evolution, modulation and distortion are needed before it can no longer be defined as one?
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